By Pat Launer
Theater entertains us in so many ways:
From a musical ‘ Zhivago ’ to a host of New Plays,
From ‘Ragtime’s’ tale of American strife
To the comic mayhem of the ‘Allergist’s Wife.’
Let’s face it. Renowned, vamping, New York drag queen Charles Busch wrote “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” as a very New York Jewish play. It was his first creation that wasn’t developed as a star vehicle for himself (his best-known works are “Psycho Beach Party” and “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom”). Commissioned by the Manhattan Theatre Club and premiering on Broadway in 2000 (with Linda Lavin , Tony Roberts and Michele Lee), you might consider it his first straight play – a midlife crisis sitcom. And undeniably, every character in the script (except the Iraqi doorman) is very New York and very Jewish. When I saw a staged reading of the wacko comedy at the Carlsbad Playreaders in March, I laughed so hard I cried. I called for San Diego theatermakers to mount an immediate full-scale production. 6th @ Penn Theatre was the first to snag the rights. I wish they’d nabbed some of the earlier cast, too. This is a high-profile group, and they’re all working hard. But they just don’t have the timing or ‘tam’ (a sense of Jewishness ) that the play demands. Only Leigh Scarritt, in the title role, sounds Noo Yawk . The others don’t even attempt the dialect. Even the name of the allergist and his wife — Taub – is pronounced Midwest or Western style (TAHB), not the way it’d be said in NYC (TOWB as in towel or cow). The Yiddishisms fall by the wayside, the gutturals are swallowed up, and the Jewish angst and neurosis morph into something unfamiliar to me as a native New Yorker. Along the way, much of the humor is lost.
This is most noticeable in the character of Frieda, Marjorie’s nasty mother, who is obsessed with her bowels and other bodily functions. As played by Carlyn Ames, she recites her ailments; she doesn’t use them as a brutal, guilt-inducing weapon. (In the reading a few months back, Sue Kay was drop-dead hilarious in the role). Scarritt reaches for (and often achieves) the gestures, the intonation, the depression and malaise of this overly wealthy, middle-age hausfrau with too much time on her hands — a dilettante, a wannabe philosopher who compulsively reads Great Books, takes classes, attends lectures, visits museums, sees avant-garde theater. In her eternal self-scrutiny, Marjorie still finds herself “of limited intellect,” possessing “very few skills.” She is, in her pretentious term, “ perdu .” The death of her shrink has catapulted her into the depths of despair; just before the play begins, she has hit bottom in a Disney store, where in her misery, she ‘accidentally’ drops six porcelain figurines (“Goofy alone was $250!”). Scarritt is funny, but she’s pushing too hard; a 50% scale-back would probably hit just the right level and tone. As Marjorie’s ineffectual husband, Fred Harlow is credible (and quite Jewish-looking, with his newly permed hair) as the self-promoting, do-gooder doctor who runs a free clinic for homeless folks with nasal blockage. Glyn Bedington plays Marjorie’s childhood friend, Lee Green, who magically turns up at the Taub’s Upper West Side apartment and proceeds to turn their lives inside out. Bedington, making a very welcome return to the stage after a too-long hiatus, doesn’t appear as wild and arty as she should at first entrance, but she makes all the outrageous things Lee says and does totally believable, however bizarre. In the small role of Mohammed, the well-read doorman, Rhys Green is a hoot – funniest when he’s reacting non-verbally to the rich-man’s madness he’s witnessing.
Claudio Raygoza has designed a snazzy, upscale, black-and-silver apartment. Director Douglas Lay is credited with costume design, which is right on the money. It’s possible that, with audience response, increased ease and familiarity, and time logged in onstage, the cast will find its Jewish heart. As my grandmother would say, “They should live and be well.”
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through September 25. Special Wednesday matinees August 17 and 31.
THE WHEELS OF A DREAM
“Ragtime” is a great big epic musical, as large in scope as the masterful 1975 E.L. Doctorow novel on which it’s based. It’s a massive undertaking for an adult theater company, but for a youth theater, it’s nearly unthinkable. Enter the plucky young California Youth Conservatory Theatre (CYC – but do we really need another C-based alphabetic company name? It’s confusing, what with CCT and CYT already in place). They’ve takes on challenges like “Les Miz” and “ Big River ,” so maybe “Ragtime” isn’t such a huge stretch for them. Their mission is highly conducive to this sort of effort: training young actors and producing shows that are shepherded by professional performers, directors, producers and choreographers.
Their “Ragtime” is headed up by multi-talented director/designer Shaun T. Evans who, with his rich baritone, does a wonderful job in the seminal role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., the Harlem pianist who gets his nosed rubbed in American intolerance and injustice. Darrell Albritton , ‘Mr. Black San Diego,’ is highly credible as Booker T. Washington. The rest of the cast of 37 is made up of students, from elementary school through college. Some could use additional vocal power; all would benefit from work on precise diction and clarity of speech. But the overall result is delightful, and there are some sensational performances here.
Especially noteworthy are UC Irvine freshman Amanda Kramer as Mother and D.J. Rez as her son. Kramer displays her lovely, powerful voice and wonderful stage presence as the WASPy, upright Mother, who grows in depth and independence, asserting her inner strength and finally escaping her oppressive existence. Rez is assured and adorable as Edgar, the young boy who sets the stage for the show and has visions of the future of the world (“Warn the Duke,” he keeps telling Houdini, a foreshadowing of the outbreak of WWII).
Other standouts are Luke Marinkovich as Mother’s Younger Brother, who acquires political consciousness and embarks on a life of activism; 17 year-old Alex Wiesel , as the object of Younger Brother’s adolescent affections — Evelyn Nesbit, ‘the girl on the swing’ — adorable with her squealed “ Wheeees !” and attractive and talented in her solos; Brandon Pohl as the relentlessly industrious Tateh , an Eastern European immigrant struggling to survive; and Jennifer Harrell as Sarah, the love of Coalhouse’s life. Her voice is sumptuous in the lows, a little weaker in the highs. She’s currently a theater major at Mesa College ; with continued training, she should develop into a fine performer.
Under the musical direction of Linda Kernohan (a Ph.D. candidate in music composition at UCSD), the chorus numbers sound terrific, with excellent backing by an all-pro 7-piece band. Christine Wisner Hall’s choreography makes every effort to replicate the Broadway original, which isn’t always easy with a large cast of young non-dancers. On opening night, there were numerous technical problems; Evans’ pre-show speech noted delays in the tech setup and rehearsal, and asked for forbearance. Presumably, by the time you see the show, the mic glitches and poorly-focused follow-spots (an unfortunate design choice) will have been eliminated. But they do point up one of the problems of this production. It tries to be and do just a bit too much. The set is too elaborate, and too difficult to reconfigure. There are so many slow, prolonged blackouts that the musical seems more like a series of vignettes than a cohesive narrative. This weakened the highly dramatic moments (though I did hear that the lag-time was considerably diminished in subsequent performances). Surprisingly and inexplicably, some of the climactic scenes seemed weakened or rushed. Sarah meets her fate far too quickly. The horrific hate-crime at the firehouse is staged more like an innocent prank than an evil, bigoted bashing. And at the end, a single shot aimed at Coalhouse is far less potent than a barrage of bullets. Yet, despite these gripes, the show retains its emotional and musical dynamism. I’ll be anxiously watching the progress of this gutsy, spirited new company. Anything that gets young people turned on to and involved in theater, especially in courageous, high-quality productions, is a very good thing, indeed.
And if you’re a fan of the musicals of “Ragtime’s” Tony Award-winning team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (“Once on This Island,” “Lucky Stiff,” “My Favorite Year,” “ Seussical ”) you won’t want to miss the local premiere of their latest collaboration with acclaimed, Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally (book-writer for “Ragtime,” “The Full Monty” and many more): “A Man of No Importance” (winner of the 2003 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway musical), is coming to SDSU November 11-20.
At the Lyceum Theatre, through August 21.
FOLLOW YOUR BLITZ
Well, the 12th annual Fritz Blitz of New Plays by California Writers got off to a rousing, if somewhat rocky start. The four plays in Week 1 featured talented actors and directors. But the plays themselves were uneven, and they all shared one element – an unsatisfying ending.
Best of the bunch was “Torn Woman” by San Diegan Jamie Garff . The provocative piece, skillfully directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, concerned an African woman seeking political asylum. Jailed for the 47 days she’s been in America , she’s trying to avoid not just an unwanted, arranged marriage, but a certain hellish fate of FGM, Female Genital Mutilation. We meet the smart corporate lawyer who’s being ‘punished’ for a social indiscretion at her high-end law firm; this is her pro bono case, which she takes on reluctantly and then fights doggedly, even losing her fiancé in the process. As she submerges herself in the details of the case, she learns a great deal about herself and the wider world. (Newlywed) Wendy Waddell is wonderful as the attorney, and Danielle Quispe , a newcomer to San Diego , is thoroughly credible as Omi, the beleaguered African who harbors untold secrets. Tony Beville is aptly lawyerly as the fiancé, and John Anderson is funny as the altruistic Stanford alum who’s become political and passionate, if sloppy and cynical. A tape of African drumming (by Dave and Daniel Rumley ) make for a perfect backdrop. But the enigmatic ending leaves too many unanswered questions (and who says this kind of innocent error would or could lead to disbarment, anyway?).
That rascally writer, Jason Connors, offered an off-the-wall little play called “Don’t Be Afraid Cuz Brian’s Just Fine.” As directed by Tim West, the production opened with two (lengthy) folksongs sung by white-clad, guitar-strumming Brian Taraz , seated cross-legged center stage. The first was a Jesus song, the second about a Starman waiting in the sky. The latter turned out to be prescient in this quirky tale of a divorced father who cleans up his act (and apartment) for the visit of his young son, only to take a very wrong turn somewhere in the stratosphere. Taraz is wholly credible as the nutcase Steve. Rebecca Johannson is a bit too calm and sanguine, given the gravity – and insanity – of the situation. After all the suspense, not to mention sturm und drang , the ending left something to be desired.
“Diner Alliances,” by San Diegan Kevin Armento , was a familiar setup. Two people meet in an all-night diner. They come together, they come apart, and the all-knowing waitress provides commentary. Well directed by Katie Rodda , the performances were excellent; Brielle Meskin playing the controlling, over-anxious young woman to Andrew Kennedy’s parade of inadequate and intimidated mates. (I last saw him as the hateful bigot in “Saturday Night at the Palace,” where he was terrific. It was a relief to see him play a Nice Guy for a change). Teri Brown was first-rate as the no-nonsense waitress who has a hard-scrabble life of her own. But no new ground is broken here, and the play doesn’t go very far on this well-trod turf.
The final play of the evening was written by another San Diegan, Carmen Beaubeaux. [Seven of the ten plays in this year’s Blitz are by locals]. “The Interns,” billed as “a play without words,” is a brief but protracted interaction between two young office-workers, competitive, spiteful interns. It was supposed to be funny, and there were a few audience laughs, but most of the humor came from the ‘sound track,’ director Duane Daniels vocally providing amusing (if repetitive) sound effects, from clock chimes to car alarms, wind to a computerized voice. Some of the laughter during the otherwise silent piece of pantomime, seemed to be nervous and uncomfortable, but it was hard to tell. Karla Francesca and Trevor Peringer were each funny in their own right. But they were employing completely different styles of physical comedy – his broad and stylized, hers much more naturalistic. The point of the exercise evaded me. After temptation, taunting, a food fight and then a symbolic-sex pig-out, the two amble off together…. Ho-hum.
Two of the next three weeks of the Blitz feature solo plays. Week 2 (August 11-14) is Staci Truskosky’s “The Smatchet ,” defined by the local writer as “a small nasty person or child.” Daniels directs. The last week is wholly consumed by San Franciscan Kim Porter’s “Munched,” which asks the burning question, ‘So who is Flip Wilson?’ Emily Cornelius directs that one. In between, during Week 3 (August 18-21), there’s a quartet of plays by San Diego and San Francisco writers. More as it all happens…..
In the Lyceum Space, through August 28.
And speaking of new plays by California writers, I was lucky to get a DVD of “Beyond the Rain,” which premiered at the Actors Festival in June, while I was out of the country. The story was conceived by Kurt Reichert and Jason Connors; the play was written and produced by Kurt, who sent it to me. Fascinating little piece, the intriguing story of a San Diego rainmaker and the journalist who seeks him out in his ‘retirement’ in the desert and tries to get the real story. The two gentlemen made a marvelous pair, and they were thoroughly convincing, Reichert as the lonely codger whose ability became a liability long ago, and the young man who seems to know a bit about loneliness himself. The taut direction was by Rosina Reynolds; lovely job all around. And the piece deserves a much wider audience.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
Word has it that the La Jolla Playhouse Page to Stage production of “ Zhivago , the Musical” is sold out for the rest of the run. Well, at least that’s something I can say about it. Otherwise, my lips are sealed (but I hear that New York producers are scoping it out).
At the La Jolla Playhouse, through August 21.
GREEK IS THE WORD….
The GrassRoots Greeks are back (bearing gifts). The Hellenic Cultural Society of San Diego has awarded the group a grant of $1000, so they can continue the readings they’ve been offering to San Diegans since January 2002. According to co-founder and artistic director David S. Cohen, the grant will allow the company to pay its actors and publicize its presentations. The 2005-6 season of monthly readings, to be held at the Adams Avenue Studio of the Arts, will open with a series exploring the character of Electra, whose mother (Clytemnestra) murdered her father (Agamemnon), prompting the Argive princess and her brother (Orestes) to commit a matricidal murder in revenge. The Monday readings begin with Eugene O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra” (Sept. 12 and 19).
LOCAL (LATINO) GUY MAKES GOOD
San Diego native Rick Najera is bringing his “ Latinologues ” to Broadway. The founder of the political comedy troupe, Latins Anonymous, he cut his teeth on local stages, and premiered several of his plays here, including the San Diego Rep-commissioned “A Quiet Love” (1997). “ Latinologues ” was presented at the Rep in 2002. In the late ‘90s, Najera was dubbed “the most innovative and provocative Latino humorist in the country.” Beginning Sept. 13, he’s appearing at the Helen Hayes Theatre, in the show he wrote and created, directed by the inimitable Cheech Marin (To this day, we’re told in his broad-based bio, Cheech and Chong movies are the number one weekend video rentals!).
In his previous work, Najera talked about growing up in ‘Barrio La Mesa.’ His parents were the first Mexicans in Logan Heights . After he started to make it big, he moved to L.A. where, he said, “I get to work with some of the most highly paid miserable people in the world.” Among his Hollywood writing credits are “MAD TV” and “In Living Color.” As an actor, his most recent films include “How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer” and “National Lampoon’s Pledge This !”
“ Latinologues ,” which has won awards in productions around the country, has been featured on Showtime’s “Latino Laugh Festival” and HBO’s “Aspen Comedy Festival.” It’s a collection of comedic and poignant monologues probing the Latino psyche and depicting aspects of the Latino experience in America . The show tackles everything from beauty pageants to immigration. It is, says Jimmy Smits , “the best showcase of Latinos in America .” Rock on, Rick… and don’t forget where you came from.
If you loved Jack Banning like everyone else who knew or worked with him, be there for the gathering to celebrate his life, at the Old Globe Theatre, Monday, August 15 at 6:30pm. Bring your fond memories and anecdotes.
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks )
“The Winter’s Tale” – beautifully designed and directed. Director Darko Tresnjak is a wonder, and he teases outstanding performances from his talented ensemble.
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 2.
“Moonlight and Magnolias” – the comic backstory behind the screenplay of ‘Gone with the Wind.” Great performances, and lots of laughs (often based on clever references to GWTW).
At the Old Globe, through August 14.
“Confessions of a Mormon Boy” – not much new ground broken in this coming-out story, but writer/performer Steven Fales is irresistible.
At Diversionary Theatre, through August 21.
“The Merchant of Venice ” – Richard Baird does it again. Excellent direction, marvelous performance (Shylock). Sensitive and nuanced production.
At the Academy of Performing Arts in La Mesa ; thru August 14.
“Macbeth” – marvelous direction (Paul Mullins), costumes (Linda Cho ) and truly spooky, chilling moments make this “ MacB ” a standout.
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 2.
“The Comedy of Errors” – Director Darko Tresnjak shows his sillier side, with a farcical, slapstick production that’s precisely directed and humorously performed.
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 2.
“ 42nd Street ” – glorious celebration of Bway’s glory days. Wonderful performances, outstanding choreography and dancing. Sheer delight!
At the Welk Resort Theatre, through August 28.
“The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron” – a fun date night, which shows both genders a few of their more amusing and infuriating foibles.
At the Theatre in Old Town , closing (after >250 performances), on September 4.
Happy Birthday to me (August 12)… celebrate as I would – at the theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.